Theatre Review: Machinal, Almeida Theatre Islington
PUBLISHED: 10:44 13 June 2018
A topical revival of unsung expressionist play inspired by the real life case of Ruth Snyder who killed her abusive husband
‘God what a thing it is to be a woman, what you got to submit to,’ is the damning indictment in Sophie Treadwell’s landmark 1928 expressionist play Machinal. It was inspired by the real-life case of Ruth Snyder, convicted for killing her abusive husband. Treadwell’s startling language offers an obvious opportunity for directors to showboat their talents but director Natalie Abrahami never loses sight of the topical reasons for staging this revival. Sound and design are embraced in a production that is dazzling but also pitifully resonant.
Claustrophobia is a key theme with splashes of heavy-duty symbolism reminiscent of Beckett peppering the stylized form, here sectioned into nine vignettes each captioned with a neon projection. The action opens in a stifling subway, brilliantly conjured by colliding bars of light. It then shifts to a Manhattan office where workers gossip in sing-song metronomic beats about teenage stenographer Miss A, later known as Helen, who is late - again. When Helen does turn up, she’s repulsed by the attention she gets from her cloying boss Mr. Jones and his fascination with her vulnerability, embodied through a fetishistic appreciation of her delicate hands. There’s a horrible inevitability to their marriage and to her discombobulated sate in the hospital after giving birth to their daughter. When she meets a man in a speakeasy, who boasts about a murder he’s committed, the die is cast.
Ben and Max Ringham’s sound is all pervasive. The 1930s dominates but background music is eclectic. In one scene, there’s the grating sound of their daughter’s computer game. Designer Miriam Buether’s set disorientates with a cunning use of a massive tilted mirror. Tones suggest Edward Hopper with small pools of light penetrating the gloom.
The ensemble is excellent and Emily Berrington as Helen is arresting. The everyman form throws up such grim male caricatures that the existential anguish may seem, well, rather gender exclusive. Helen’s blankness and passivity means she teeters between character and construct and being hung up on divorce dates the play. Yet the desperation is acute. ‘These modern neurotic women,’ curses the doctor. Made plain here, that’s really not the point.